Do you remember the story where Jesus was confronted about his racism? It certainly wasn’t one I learned in Sunday school.
My friend and colleague Kristian Smith preached a message after the overturning of Roe v. Wade called Holding Jesus Accountable that radically changed my perspective on Mark 7:24-30 and the concept of accountability. If you have 30 minutes, let that sermon simultaneously bless and challenge you on your lunch break.
I want to take his observations and apply them to a different facet of Jesus’ ministry and our relationships with one another.
Let me set the stage: Jesus is tired after a long day of ministry and decides to get dinner. He picks a place where he’s pretty confident no one will recognize him.
While he tries to enjoy his meal in peace, a woman approaches. Her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she begs Jesus to cast it out. Just another typical request that Jesus can easily accommodate, right?
What the text doesn’t highlight is the social tension in this encounter. Jesus is a Jewish man, and this woman is Syrophoenician– a mixture of Assyrian (descended from the Babylonians) and Phoenician (descended from the Canaanites) lineage.
Historically, the Hebrew people have been at odds, even at war with both the Babylonians and the Canaanites for generations. As this woman approaches Jesus, the Jewish sentiment towards Syrophoenicians is that they are leeches on society, unfavored by God, and downright terrible people.
Typically, we expect Jesus to be compassionate toward the needy. But when this woman asks him for help, he sees who he was conditioned to see: a woman from an ethnicity that his own ethnicity vilified. So instead of responding with compassion, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
To be clear, he’s using “children” as a metaphor for the people of Israel and “dog” to refer to this woman and her people.
Today, we have a derogatory dog-inspired term for women. While that word didn’t exist in Jesus’ time, its sentiment did– and that’s the sentiment Jesus uses when he speaks to this woman.
When I consider this story in light of current events, here’s what I can’t shake: Just as Jesus’ tradition conditioned him to vilify the Syrophoenicians, proponents of Christian Nationalism are continuing to condition us to wrongly vilify minoritized people.
The only things that have “trickled down” from these politicians and Christian Nationalist leaders are lies– and those lies aren’t coming down as an unintentional trickle so much as roaring down from a strategically placed fire hose.
We are drowning in lies about one another. We are drowning in lies about who Black people are (thugs, gangsters, inciters of violence). We are drowning in lies about who LGBTQ+ people are (pedophiles, groomers). We are drowning in lies about who Gen Z is (selfish, incapable, uninterested in the world). All the while, these politicians continue to take away free school lunch programs for food-insecure kids, kill Mother Earth, and create plans to take away our hard-earned Social Security.
These lies will be the death of us all –literally– if we can’t turn off the media and actually listen to one another.
But there is hope, for the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman isn’t finished yet.
After Jesus calls this woman a bitc– dog, she responds by saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” He then considers the woman and heals her daughter.
Numerous Bible scholars indicate that up to this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had only referred to his call in terms of his people– the Israelites. Only after this encounter does he describe his messianic call in reference to all nations. After listening to a woman he was conditioned to vilify, Jesus –God-incarnate– changed his mind, changing the trajectory of the gospel forever.
Did you catch that? This woman challenged Jesus’ perception of what he’d been taught to believe about Syrophoenician people– and he listened.
As Christian Nationalists continue to flood our media with lies about Black people, LGBTQ+ people, and even American history, we need to follow Jesus’ example. We need to listen to those we have been taught to vilify and be willing to change our minds about them. We have to look past the propaganda to get to know the real, living, breathing people.
Jesus taught that “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” If Jesus himself needed to be freed from the lies of racism, why would you believe that you don’t?
But there is hope in this reality: If Jesus can grow past his bigotry, so can you.
Right now, Black folks, women, and queer folks –especially trans and nonbinary folks– are the Syrophoenician woman, asking for help. Will we listen?
Will we change our minds as Jesus did? Or will we continue to let our conditioning keep us from showing love to our neighbor?
The choice is yours, neighbor. May we all be willing to mute misleading media, open our ears to one another, and let what we hear soften our hearts.
A bivocational pastor, writer and spiritual director based in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently serves as the Pastor of Congregational Care at The Faith Community and works as a Spiritual Director at Reclamation Theology. Cawthon-Freels is the author of Reclamation: A Queer Pastor’s Guide to Finding Spiritual Growth in the Passages Used to Harm Us (Nurturing Faith Books), and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.